Writing Workshop is About Telling Stories
Over the weekend, I held a writing workshop here at the house. Writers gathered in my living room, clutching notebooks and harboring stories. We ranged in age from 84 to 15, six women and one man. The 84-year-old woman wanted to share a story about her night-blooming cereus, a desert plant she’d rescued from the roadside some 40 years ago. It has been with her ever since. She told us that the plant blooms only once a year. By now, the plant is enormous, capable of being moved only on a rolling cart. The blooms are huge, white, and fleeting. The night before she came to the workshop, the plant was to give forth its annual blooms, which apparently come in the middle of the night, a half a dozen or more opening like balloons and then collapsing after a night of show. And so she invited friends from her retirement community to come over, in their bathrobes, and view this spectacular event, celebrating it with champagne. She wrote about this tender moment for us and in so doing she realized the parallels in her own life, surely in its final segment — and was inspired to write it so. We all found her story amazing and inspiring.
Another, a woman from a rural part of Massachusetts, wanted to write about the farm her father bought when she was 6 years old. She had seven brothers and sisters, and they’d been living in a small house in the suburbs. The new farm gave them space and the mysteries of farm living, the chickens, the cows, the earth. Writing all this took her there, and she wept for the experience of it. And we wept with her as she rendered the farm into a real place we all seemed to know, and then we felt the loss of it, too.
The 15-year-old brought the enthusiasm only youth can show. Her excitement about writing, about being a writer, showed through. A freshman at the local high school, she surprised us with the news that she had already been in a movie, shot in Hollywood last summer. It will be coming out in the fall, she said, and we all scribbled down the name and vowed to attend. A big set of braces on her teeth glinted frequently as she smiled a lot. And laughed. A beautiful girl. She happily filled us in about texting and IMing and how one gets around these things in class, as well as how such a young person can manage to keep up with conversations on the cell phone, all those messages, as well as studies at school and conversations that take place on keypads. Add in casting calls and — well, it’s not an easy life for a young girl these days. As if to prove her point, she received a call on her cell phone toward the end of the first day. She’d been called to a set in Connecticut and had to leave the workshop early. That took some adjustment for the rest of us. She’d brought us so much joy and made us happy about this sometimes-dubious future we face.
Another, a published novelist, came hoping to work her way into the form of the personal essay, the subject of this particular workshop. She drove down from Vermont and brought with her funny, warm, insightful stories about the town she lives in and the people of her town, a story about the young boy who mows her lawn, expanded into the story of the big family he belongs to — a family who has lived in the town for generations and who holds a certain entitlement as a result. Most of family members enjoy hunting, and one of them bragged about the fact that he’d shot a big buck out the window — not just out the window but through the window, blasting out the glass and the screening along with the deer. With her words, she brought us laughter and tears and the feeling that we’ve known such a boy, such a family — loved them and hated them all at once.
While we shared all of this, we all leapt to our feet to watch my dog encounter a fisher cat outside the porch, successfully fight it off, sending the animal up a tree, and then down the road. The dog, terrified, couldn’t stop barking, for hours, which seriously interrupted our quiet workshop. Even while we tell our stories, new stories unfold.
Having such a group of gifted and inspired writers in my home for the weekend made me happy and gave me so much to think about these days since. So much grim news is being issued from the world of publishing, as if no one will ever read again. It’s over, the battle won by e-mail and BlackBerries and cell phones, where stories spill out, never to be captured again. Our young participant’s grasp and love of the technology of her generation didn’t surprise any of us. And yet, here we were, in a room together, sharing stories. Everyone wrote with pad and pen, no computers. It could have been anytime in our nation’s history. It’s the stories that keep us alive, however they’re told. I still believe that the written word is one of the best ways to bring a disparate world together.